This Is a Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

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CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Mari Natsuki, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Liev Schreiber, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Dog-on-Dog Violence and Dictatorial Tendencies

Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited)

“Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Nothing, right? We human beings still love dogs, and that cannot possibly ever change! But what if something so terrible happened that it could make us turn on them? One of the functions of fiction is training ourselves to handle horrible hypotheticals. Thus, with the stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has delivered an invaluable how-to guide for if the world should ever turn so severely on our furry companions.

Twenty years in the future, Japan has banished its entire canine population to the bluntly literally named Trash Island, due to a widespread outbreak of snout fever and dog flu. The two conditions appear to be connected as how HIV can lead to AIDS. In this dystopia, the fear from those in charge that the disease could spread to humans is enough to override any bounty of puppy love, despite promising progress for a cure. So intrepid folks must step up on their own to save the dogs, like the young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin), an orphaned ward of the state adopted by his distant uncle, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). Atari ventures to Trash Island to save his canine protector Spots (Liev Schreiber), who also happens to be the outbreak’s Dog Zero. Joining up with him in his quest are a group of other cast-off dogs with variations on the same sort of name – Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) – as well as Chief (Bryan Cranston), the fiercely independent stray who has always lived on his own.

An island entirely populated by dogs might sound like the pinnacle of Wes Anderson giving into his most indulgent instincts, but the darkness of the premise is enough to assuage any of those concerns. Plus, the animation does not hold back from the more aesthetically displeasing elements. These pups are mangy, with fur falling off and distorted pupils. They are also fairly irritable; one early standoff results in an ear getting bit off. Isle of Dogs works as an adventure film as well as it does because it does not back away from the danger, while still bringing plenty of fun to that peril. Fight scenes are portrayed in cartoon chaos clouds, while an accidental trip through a trash incinerator is met with droll acceptance. The set pieces are whimsical, but the stakes are life-or-death.

Isle of Dogs could easily be appreciated just for its surface level sensations, but like so many talking animal flicks, there is an allegory lurking not too far below. And considering current worldwide political trends, Wes Anderson’s anti-fascist storytelling is profoundly welcome. Quarantining a contagious population is an understandable disease control tactic, but what happens to these dogs is more banishment than quarantine. And when a solution appears to be possible, Mayor Kobayashi hides that development for the sake of retaining power, trotting out clearly fraudulent election results in the process. BoJack Horseman-style anthropomorphic dogspeak (“my brother from another litter”) helps it go down easy, but these are heavy ideas that deserve and are granted careful consideration.

A few more items worth noting: even though the setting is Japan, the dogs just about exclusively speak English, even when communicating with humans speaking Japanese. In fact, there is a good deal of American and Japanese cultural mixing. All the political machinations are translated by an interpreter (Frances McDormand), apparently for American and other English-speaking audiences, and an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) leads a revolt against Kobayashi. The bilingual setup feels woven together mostly seamlessly, though I do wonder if Asian audiences might have a different take on the matter than I do. And I would be terribly remiss if I did not mention Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score, pounded along by unrelenting taiko drums, keeping the tension both constantly uneasy and delicious.

Isle of Dogs is Recommended If You Like: Wes Anderson Symmetry, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Animal Farm, Zootopia, The Goonies, BoJack Horseman

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Puppy Snaps

 

This Is a Movie Review: Seeking Justice for a Cold Rape/Murder Case, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is the Timeliest Dark Comedy of 2017

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CREDIT: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Željko Ivanek, Kathryn Newton

Director: Martin McDonagh

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Cussing, Police Abuse, and Arson

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)

The release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not be any more timely. We are currently living in a moment unprecedented in terms of the rate at which prominent sexual harassers and abusers are being exposed. By putting up the titular billboard triptych calling out local law enforcement for its inability to solve the case of her daughter’s rape and murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is instantly a symbol of this age. Unsurprisingly, she butts up against a fair deal of racism within the Ebbing police department. But that discrimination isn’t coming from Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who, though he may be a bit hard-edged, is absolutely well-meaning; he so wishes he had physical evidence in the Hayes case. And the racist officer in question might actually have some good detective in him and maybe even some decent humanity.

Based on his track record, writer/director Martin McDonagh is not an obvious choice to stick the sensitive landing that Three Billboards pulls off. With In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he demonstrated his knack for understanding the foibles of humanity, especially when it comes to souls existentially cast adrift by the whims of fate. Such an approach would not be impossible for a film about an unsolved rape case, but it would be depressing. While McDonagh can be cutting, he is so for the laughs. It is not his bag to make his audience endlessly despair. Thus, while Three Billboards does feature plenty of his signature jabs, he ultimately re-calibrates his typical tone enough to make this effort truly uplifting.

The most astute trick that McDonagh pulls off involves the constant acknowledgement that individuals contain multitudes and are not easy to pin down, even in a story driven by something so obviously wrong as rape. Mildred’s crusade is righteous, but plenty of townspeople wish she would just go away. While much of that has to do with a tendency to defend the status quo, it is also due to her own prickly personality. But to be fair to her (and the movie certainly is), not many people have figured out how to insist upon justice while remaining kind. Willoughby receives the brunt of Mildred’s ire, and while he can be too heated for his own good, he knows what’s right. And because this movie is so generous to its characters, he has his own terminal cancer-fueled narrative. Also coming in hot is Mildred’s relationship with her ex-husband (John Hawkes), which turns especially nasty when it comes to his new much younger girlfriend (Samara Weaving). But it turns out that he is with her less because she is a pretty young thing and more because she has instilled in him a Zen calm, noting that anger only begets more anger.
The evolution of Officer Jason Dixon illustrates that proposition best of all. On the page, his transformation might read as too transformational to be believed, even with a writer as skilled as McDonagh. But thanks to the chops of Sam Rockwell, his redemptive arc reads as perfectly natural. When we meet him, Dixon is frequently drunk, openly racist, and constantly abusing his power. But when relieved of his badge, he finds room to make amends, ultimately teaming up with Mildred to fulfill his duty as a decent person. In a world where evil acts continue to be perpetrated, it is nice to know that humanity can persist.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Recommended If You Like: Fargo, M*A*S*H, Groundhog Day

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Fat Dentists